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3D printers: Almost mainstream

Robert L. Mitchell | Dec. 22, 2011
Richard Smith needed to build a wall-climbing robot for a customer -- so he printed one.

"Visualization software such as Google's SketchUp provides a fast entry route" to 3D computer-aided design (CAD), says Nick Grace, manager of RapidformRCA, which acts as a 3D printing service bureau for students at the Royal College of Art in London and uses many different software design tools and 3D printer technologies.

But, he adds, "the shortcuts made by these tools are not allowed for in the 3D printer's slicing routine." For example, some software may not fully render elements of an object that aren't needed from a particular viewpoint. That causes problems when the file is sent to the 3D printer. "We still regularly get unbuildable surface files or haphazardly constructed and translated data from files that render a perfectly coherent image," he says. In other words, they look fine on screen but won't print correctly.

Professional solid modeling tools do better job, but usually require specialized training and expertise. "The products today are pretty difficult to use," admits Gonzalo Martinez, director of strategic research at Autodesk.

CAD software makers are addressing the 3D content creation challenge in three ways: By introducing easier-to-use solid modeling tools for 3D content creation, by offering libraries of 3D objects that give users a head start on a design and by using specialized software such as Autodesk's 123D Photofly. This tool can combine a series of photographs of an object, taken from all sides, into a usable 3D model -- a process known as photogrammetry.

Professional tool developers are working "to make complex operations more simple," says Martinez. "Things that require training today you will be able to do with little training to create complex geometries."

For example, Autodesk 123D, a free tool for CAD novices, is a much-simplified version of the vendor's professional tools.

Other products, such as Rhino, a $995 program from McNeel, are edging closer to that middle ground between complexity and capability. "It is a high-end surface/mesh modeler, but has accessible controls and an excellent context-sensitive help with video clips," says Grace.

"We are still some way off the point when a novice can draw, model and print without help from a specialist," Grace says, "But that day will come."

But creating a printable 3D object can be tricky. Designs created in a CAD program need to be "water tight," or complete. "All surfaces have to be closed and lie on top of each other or you get holes in your part," says Jon Cobb, vice president of marketing at 3D printer vendor Stratasys.

The design then needs to be exported to a standard file format 3D printers can use, most often the stereolithography (STL) format, originally developed by 3D Systems, that has become a de-facto industry standard.


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